My first foray into agriculture, in the 1980s, ended in failure. I bought a large expanse of land on the Yola-Numan highway, and started farming maize. It didn’t work out as well as I thought; the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the mid to late 1980s didn’t help. Today the land is still there, used by many smallholder farmers for their own cultivation. My wife also runs a farm on some of the land, breeding chickens, quail birds and ostriches.
Someday soon we hope to go back to large-scale cultivation of crops, because my belief in agriculture is iron clad. That belief was so strong that to acquire land for my first major agricultural investment, I sold my house to fund the venture.
In the mean time we are trying our hands at something new. There are currently no automated animal feed mills in Northern Nigeria; all of the production that happens is manual and small-scale. Considering that most of Nigeria’s cattle production takes place in Northern Nigeria, you can see that there is plenty of opportunity for a feed mill business.
For that reason we are now building, in partnership with a Portuguese company, a modern and automated animal feed mill (poultry and cattle) just outside Yola. When it is completed we hope to serve the entire Northern Nigeria with high quality animal feed. Because it will be fully automated it will create only a few direct jobs, but the number of indirect and support jobs – in sales and distribution – and the economic opportunity will be significant.
Whenever I talk about my involvement in business, one question I always get asked is this: what did you do when you were in government? It is a question I am always happy to answer.
I do not believe that is the business of the government to set up industries. Businesses should be created and run by the private sector, by individuals and institutions who have seen a need and would like to fill it.
What the government exists to do is create a conducive and enabling environment for businesses to operate and thrive. So if, as Vice President, I had somehow ordered the establishment of a government feed mill in Northern Nigeria, we might have been able to organise a big commissioning ceremony, but there would be nothing to guarantee that the mill would still be in operation today. We have seen how government has run businesses in Nigeria in the past.
What we did when we were in government was what we should have done: focus on the fundamental structural reforms required to create a favourable business environment in Nigeria. Which is why the government faced the foreign debt issue head on, as well as policy reforms in oil and gas, power, banking, telecoms and pensions. It is also why we focused on the success of the privatisation programme.
Today, all around the country you can see success stories. Every time I inspect the feed mill under construction I am reminded that not very far from Yola is the Savannah Sugar Company, which was acquired by Alhaji Aliko Dangote in 2003 as part of the privatization programme. Until its acquisition by Dangote Industries Limited (DIL) it was a struggling business. In the decade since it was acquired DIL has pumped billions of Naira into it, and it is today cultivating 18,000 hectares of land, with a vision to expand to 100,000 over the next few years, and providing employment for thousands of people.
I’m happy to play my own part. My plunge into business happened upon my retirement from public service. Today our businesses employ thousands of people across Nigeria, and provide economic opportunity for even more. When I joined the government in 1999, I surrendered them all to a trust. Now that I am again a private citizen I will continue to do business, to invest in opportunities where I see them. The fact that I might get criticised, because I once held political office, or that failure is always a possibility, will never stop me from actively pursuing business opportunities where I see them.